First World War
Sinking of the Lusitania
by Bill Purkayastha, 1 January 2009
It's May, 1915.
The Great War is on. Britain, France and Russia are
facing Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain - whose lifelines from
its colonial empire stretch across the sea lanes - is desperately
looking to bring in more allies, particularly the US, then neutral.
Those sea lanes are threatened both by German surface raiders and
more importantly by German submarines (U-boats).
In the Admiralty in London is the First Lord of the
Admiralty (the equivalent to the Minister of the Navy), one Winston
Churchill, someone whose name would become better known years later
in different circumstances.
Churchill, who is half-American, has no
compunctions about using questionable tactics to try and get the
ships through the U-boat lines. One of his secret orders to the
captains of the merchant ships is to fly the flags of neutral
nations, especially American flags. Another is his order to merchant
ship captains to ram any surfaced U-boat that cares to approach. And
yet another order is the Q-ship programme: armed ships with hidden
weaponry and sailors dressed in civilian clothing that are meant to
attack any U-boat that surfaces and approaches, a war crime if there
ever was one.
But why should any U-boat surface and approach a
merchant ship? Well, this is 1915, and there are certain
rules that submarines are supposed to observe. Submarines in this
day and age are supposed to be submersible cruisers, and
they're supposed to fight by Cruiser Rules.
And what are Cruiser Rules?
Briefly, this is what a U-boat that sees a merchant
ship is supposed to do: it should surface and fire a shot across the
bows of the ship from its deck gun (all the subs of the time carry a
deck gun) as a signal for the ship to stop. It should then approach
the ship, put a boarding party on it, search it, and if it's a
neutral, let it go. If it's an enemy ship, it's the responsibility
of the submarine to ensure the safety of the crew and passengers (if
any) after which it can take the ship as a prize of war.
But how can anyone in his right mind expect any
submarine to obey these rules? How can any sub skipper ensure the
safety of possibly hundreds of crew and passengers, in the middle of
the ocean of all places? If he takes the ship as a prize, what is he
supposed to do with it? Abandon his sub and sail on the ship to the
nearest friendly harbour?
Still, it's the law, and that's what the U-boat
mostly does: it allows the crew to take to their lifeboats and then
sinks the ship. But in order to do all that, it has to surface and
approach the ship, trusting the ship to obey the rules
These are the rules applying to unarmed ships.
On the other hand, ships which are armed or escorted by armed ships have no right to
such considerate treatment from cruisers or from submarines.
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It should be obvious to anyone with sense
that if the sub is afraid that any ship that it approaches might try
to ram it, or open fire with hidden guns, it will not surface and
make itself a target. And if it has reason to think that enemy ships
are flying neutral flags, it might as well disregard the neutral
flag and assume any ships it encounters are hostile.
How to involve the US?
What Mr Churchill has achieved, by his actions, is
therefore to put at risk every ship and every sailor on those ships,
even if they belong to neutral nations and are completely innocent
of all involvement in the war. It is inconceivable that he does not
know what he is doing.
As mentioned, the primary purpose behind all this
is the desire of Mr Churchill to involve the US as a belligerent in
the war on the side of Britain, and he is not particularly
scrupulous about how he goes about it. He is helped by the officials
in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, who are about as
pro-British as it is possible to get without openly declaring war on
Germany. They know, because the Germans have showed them captured
documents, all about the British orders to fly the American flag and
to ram U-boats - but they do nothing about it.
Wilson, meanwhile, is quietly going about the job
of "manufacturing consent" - working at changing the mindset of the
neutralist American population towards involvement in a European war
that is absolutely none of America's business. He knows that it's
still far too early to go to war, because the spadework has to be
done first, but he is busy doing it.
RMS Lusitania - once the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic
One way in which the Americans are helping Britain
is by shipping quantities of munitions - contraband according to the
laws of war - to Britain in the holds of merchant ships. Since these
munitions are contraband, they are shipped under various cover
names, like "fur", for instance, or "lard", or "cheese", and are
dispatched from fictitious firms and meant for fictitious firms.
One such shipment of munitions is going across the
Atlantic in the holds of the passenger ship Lusitania.
The Lusitania is much more than a passenger ship.
Once the fastest ship to make the Atlantic crossing, she was
designed from the outset to be an armed merchant cruiser in time of
war and has gun mounts (though no actual guns) hidden under coils of
ropes on her deck. Almost her entire cargo is contraband, but as
usual, disguised as "fur", etc. She also carries over a thousand
passengers (this is 1915 and travelling to a country at war for a
holiday or on business isn't unusual), including 139 Americans.
Meanwhile, Americans of German ethnic origin are
well aware of the Wilson government's attempts to propagandise the
people into a war mood. They realise that if a British ship carrying
Americans is sunk, and Americans in large numbers are killed, it's
going to play into the hands of the pro-war party. The next such
ship to sail is the Lusitania, and they issue, post-haste, an
advertisement in it in the name of the German embassy cautioning
passengers from travelling in British ships in a war zone. The advert
ultimately appears only in one paper - ironically right next to
another advert, this one of the Lusitania sailing.
Although the advert does cause some disquiet, not many
actually cancel their passage on the ship.
The Lusitania sails on 1 May 1915. As a wartime
economy measure one of her boiler rooms is shut down, thus limiting
her top speed. It still is much faster than any sub can manage,
Meanwhile, the U-boats are active off the west
coast of Ireland. One such boat is the U 20, commanded by
Kapitšnleutnant Walther Schwieger, a slightly ruthless character who
has a habit of attacking ships (including a hospital ship on one
occasion) without warning. In Schwieger's defence, though, it might
be said that on his previous patrol his sub had been damaged in a
ramming attempt, and therefore he is naturally not inclined to risk
his command in glorious Cruiser Rules engagements.
Over the course of his patrol, Schwieger attacks
and sinks several ships, all off the west coast of Ireland, in an
area which is directly in the path of the Lusitania. Among his
victims are two merchant ships which he torpedoes without warning.
However, apart from a general message warning of submarine activity,
Captain Turner of the Lusitania is given no information whatever
about the activities of the U 20. And, although the Royal Navy
cruiser Juno is ordered to act as escort, she is suddenly ordered to
port, leaving the Lusitania to steam into danger, at below her top
speed, unwarned and unescorted.
Short of fuel and running out of torpedoes,
Schwieger decides to make for home, and turns northwards. On the
afternoon of 7 May, his course brings him into sight of the
Lusitania, and he submerges and prepares to attack. He gets into
position and fires a single torpedo into her starboard (right) side.
German torpedoes of this period - we are in 1915,
remember - are noted for their unreliability. Sometimes they run
wild, sometimes they fail to explode. Schwieger himself has little
faith in them, and he is astonished at what happens when his shot
strikes the British ship behind the bridge. Here is what he dictates
to his log as he watches the effect of his torpedo through the
Submarine U 20 of the German Empire's navy
2.10pm. Clean bowshot at 700 metres range, angle
of intersection 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots. Torpedo hits
starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy
detonation takes place with a very strong explosion cloud (far
beyond front funnel). The explosion of the torpedo must have been
followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The
superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn
asunder, fire breaks out and smoke envelops the high bridge. The
ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard quickly,
immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship is
going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion on board; the boats
are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. Apparently
considerable panic; some boats, full to capacity, are rushed from
above, touch the water with either stem or stern first, and founder
2.25pm. Since it seems as if the steamer can only
remain afloat a short while longer, dive to 24 metres and head out
to sea. I could not have launched a second torpedo into that
struggling throng of humanity trying to save their lives.
Schwieger's torpedo holes the side of the
Lusitania's hull and lets in water, flooding the longitudinal
bunkers, but it does not sink the ship. What sinks the ship is
something else - a massive explosion in one of the forward cargo
compartments, that blows out such a large part of the hull that the
45,000 tonne liner goes down in just eighteen minutes. Due to a design
weakness, hardly any of the lifeboats can be launched. The casualty
list is horrifying - 1,198 people drown, including 128 of the 139
Americans on board, and not one of whom is not a civilian. What the
cause of the explosion that sinks the Lusitania is a matter of
conjecture: is it the coal powder in her holds, or is it her alleged
cargo of "fur" and "cheese"?
The British cruiser Juno is steaming towards the
site of the sinking when she is recalled to port by the British
authorities - even though she is within sight of the survivors in
the water. Meanwhile, the U 20 and Kapitšnleutnant Schwieger have
long since headed out to sea.
Precisely as feared by the German-Americans, the
sinking of the Lusitania is projected as a vicious piratical attack
in the US media, all mention of the illegal cargo is suppressed or
denied, and it serves as the beginning of a campaign that leads to
the US entering the war two years later.
I'm not saying the Lusitania was deliberately
sacrificed. But there is little reason to assume that her sinking
could not have been avoided; and her sinking was exploited, to the
The Lusitania listing to starboard and towards the bow
Hanson, David - The Sinking of the
Lusitania, Virginia Western Community College, 2008
Images and text copyright © Bill Purkayastha. An original
feature for the History Files.